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Lord Byron's NovelThe Evening Land
By John Crowley
William MorrowISBN: 0-06-055658-7
Observe - but no! No one may observe, save the unfeeling Moon, who sails without progress through the clouds - a young Lord, who on the ramparts of his half-ruined habitation keeps a late watch. Wrapt in a Scotch mantle little different from that worn in all times by his ancestors - and not on the Scotch side alone - he has a light sword buckled on, a curved and bejewelled one not of this northern land's manufacture. He has two pocket pistols as well, made by Mantons - for this is a year in the present century, tho' what the youth may see in the moon's light is much as it has been for these past seven or eight. There is the old battlement that faces to the North, whereon he stands, whose stones he rests his hand upon. Beyond, he sees the stony cliff, bearded in gorse and heather, that builds toward the mountains, and - for his eye is preternaturally sharp - the thread of a track that for aye has ascended it. Black against the tumbled sky is the top of a farther watchtower, reached by that selfsame track. Farther on, in the darkness, lie a thousand acres of Caledonian wilds and habitations: to which this outwatching youth is heir. His name, the reader will perhaps not expect to hear, is Ali.
Against what enemy does he go armed? In truth he knows of none - not his servants asleep in the hall below - not bandits, or rivals of his clan and the Laird his father, such as might once have threatened from the dark.
The Laird his father! The reader will remember the man, if the reader be one who listens to tales in London theatre-boxes, or frequents race-courses, or hells; if he have haunted Supper-clubs, or places with less euphuistical names; known Courts, or Law-courts. John Porteous - who inherited, on the death of his own amazed and helpless sire, the singularly inappropriate title Lord Sane - was a catalogue of sins, not only the lesser ones of Lust and Gluttony but the greater ones of Pride, Anger and Envy. He wasted his own substance, and when it was gone wasted that of his wife and tenants, and then borrowed, or coerced, more from his terrified acquaintanceship, who knew well enough that the Lord would stint at nothing in revealing their own indiscretions, to which often as not he had tempted them in decades past. 'Black-mail' was a word he professed to shudder at: he never, he said, employed the mails. What he spent these gains upon, however got, seemed less of interest to him than the expenditure itself; he was always ready to tear down what he contrived to possess, just in the moment of possession. It was just such an outrageous act of destruction that had earned him the sobriquet, in a time that liked to bestow such, of 'Satan'. He was a wicked man, and he took a devilish delight in it - when he was not in his rage, or maddened by some obstacle to his desire; indeed a fine fellow, in his way, and of a large circle. He had travelled extensively, seen the Porte, walked beneath the Pyramids, sired (it was said without proof) litters of dark-skinned pups in various corners of the South and East.
Of late 'Satan' Porteous has kept much to his wife's Scotch estates, which he has improved and despoiled in equal measure. Onto the ancient towers and battlements and the ruined chapel a former Laird added a Palladian wing of great size and bleak aspect, ruining himself in the process; there the present Laird kept Lady Sane, well out of the fashionable world and indeed out of the world entire. She is rumoured to have gone mad, and as far as Lord Sane's heir knew of her, she is not all of sound mind. The lady's fortune 'Satan' ran through long before - then when he had need of funds, he squeezed his tenants, and sold the timber on his parks and grounds to be cut, which increased the melancholy sense of ruination there far more than did the windowless chapel open to the owl and the fox. The trees grew a hundred years; the money's already spent. He keeps a tame bear, and an American lynx, and he stands them by him when he calls his son before him.
Yes, it is he, his father, Lord Sane, of whom Ali is afraid, though the man is this night nowhere nearby - with his own eyes Ali saw his Lordship's coach depart for the South, four blacks pulling with all their strength as the coachman lashed them. Yet he is afraid, as afraid as he is brave; his very being seems to him but a candle- flame, and as easily put out.
The Moon was past midheaven when, shivering tho' not from cold, Ali retired. His great Newfoundland dog Warden lay by his bed, so fast asleep he hardly roused at his master's familiar tread. Oldest, and only true, friend! Ali pressed for a moment his face into the dog's neck. He then drank the last of a cup of wine, into which a minim of Kendals drops were dropt. Nevertheless he did not undress - only wrapt his mantle close about him, his pistols within reach - propped his watchful head upon cold pillows - and - believing he would not sleep - he slept.
In deep darkness he woke, feeling upon him a heavy hand. He was one quick to wake, and might have leapt up, taking up the pistol near at hand - but he did not - he lay as motionless as though still asleep, for the face that looked into his, tho' known to him, was not a man's. A black face, the eyes small and yellow, and the little light shone upon teeth as long as daggers. It was his father's tame bear, the hand upon him its hand!
Excerpted from Lord Byron's Novel by John Crowley Excerpted by permission.
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